This text was written by Eugene Istomin in 1990 at Isaac Stern’s request for a reissue of the recordings of the Trio as a part of a Stern collection.
The year was 1950. The place was Prades in the eastern Pyrenees mountains in France. The occasion was a festival commemorating the bicentenary of J.-S. Bach’s death. The unique focus of the event was on the figure of Pablo Casals who had, through Alexander Schneider’s persuasion, agreed to lead it and make music again after a self-imposed exile presumed final.
The two youngest soloists invited to participate were Isaac Stern and myself. Schneider has convinced Casals that such a contact between generations spanning nearly a century would be mutually interesting and beneficial – at least to us. Events proved this true beyond any of our wildest dreams. Lives were changed – friendships were formed – musical alliances forged and projects conceived – among them our trio and the recordings of this collection as well as the long lasting Stern-Istomin collaborations which resulted in the complete Beethoven piano-violin sonatas recordings of 1984.
How did this come about? The extraordinary generative spirit of Casals was a catalyst that Stern and I were both young enough, yet experienced enough to make the most of. We were possessed of a veritable musical treasure trove and we knew it. It served as a fount of inspiring ideas, revelations, and affirmations of our individual worth as musicians. Affirmation for me because as a 24-year-old pianist, much coddled but also much criticized, it meant a lot to be rated as a major artist by a historic musician of Casals’ stature. As for Stern, who arrived basking in triumph from London, with projects of major recordings with Sir Thomas Beecham of the Brahms and Sibelius Violin Concerti, he was further inspirited when Casals immediately compared him to Eugene Ysaÿe, whom the Maestro considered the king of all the great violinists. He had known from Sarasate and Joachim to Kreisler and Heifetz. For two brash young Americans in France in 1950, we were not doing too badly!
We played and recorded a trio in that festival, but it was of rather another sort- the Bach trio sonata with flute (a bit higher up than the cello) with John Wummer, the solo flute of the New York Philharmonic. Stern also recorded the A Minor Violin Concerto and the Oboe and Violin Concerto with Marcel Tabuteau under Casals’ direction while I played the cembalo part of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with Joseph Szigeti and John Wummer conducted by Casals as well as a solo toccata.
For the next two years, Stern and I returned to play and record with Casals as trio partners and in other formations – in Stern’s case with Myra Hess the Brahms Trio Opus 8, the Schumann Piano Quintet and some landmark recordings of the Brahms Sextet Opus 18 and the Schubert Two Cello Quintet. He also recorded the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante
(William Primrose, viola). And in mine, with Alexander Schneider, four Beethoven Trios, as well as the Schubert Trio Opus 99 in B flat and the Mozart Piano Concerto K. 449 with the Festival Orchestra, Casals conducting.
Finally, in the 1952 Festival, Stern and I played a sonata together for the first time (the Schumann A minor).
There is no doubt in my mind that an already strongly ingrained chemistry between Stern and myself was enhanced by our collaborations with Casals. We wanted to follow up in the “real world” and soon began to talk about musical projects together outside of Prades. Dare we entertain the idea of forming our own “ALL STAR TRIO” in the mode of Cortot-Thibaud-Casals or more recently, Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatigorsky? Why not? Aside from the vulgarity of the term “All-Star” trio music is after all an exercise in individual project in triplicate rather than a self-effacing metamorphosis through blending unlike the String Quartet which is a blending of three under the imperative of the first violin’s domination – like it or this is a musical reality. In point of fact, the blending in trio playing is a relatively simple technical matter of balance providing the players are congenial – a critical if of course! What can be especially gratifying in trio playing is being compelled by the music time and again to appropriate the playing of your partners as your own, rather than sacrificing your personality to theirs.
Obviously, Stern and I could not export the monumental Casals from Prades as our trio partner. So we needed someone in our own generation and that someone many considered the finest cellist in America, Leonard Rose. He had begun his solo career in 1951 after an illustrious period as first cellist of the Cleveland and New York Philharmonic orchestras. Stern and Rose had already performed the Brahms double concerto in concert and ultimately recorded it with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic (a very famous recording). Rose and I had played a few joint recitals as well and had established a very high mutual regard. In ensemble string playing, Stern and Rose always maintained that the one technical blending that was most important and rare was the fusion of vibratos. Often they must sound as one or interlock in one phrase by a single seamless line. So they should match – and they did – fitting like hand in glove. That sealed it. Rose agreed to join us in Chicago at the Ravinia Festival in the summer of 1955. After performing as soloist with the Chicago Symphony, we gave a series of concerts of sonatas and trios. This was our shakedown cruise. Having thus tested the waters we found some of the critical response in Chicago’s press icy indeed. Very much sobered, we decided to go on with our solo careers and dream on a few more years about our version of THE TRIO. In fact during the next five years, we had occasion to play several times together – and mainly again at events involving Pablo Casals, the festival of Puerto Rico, for example. In 1958, Stern and I played the Mozart E flat Piano Quartet in a recorded concert performance with Milton Katims, violist and Mischa Schneider, cellist.
Biding our time and awaiting the right occasion to regroup, we finally set sail toward our goal again in 1960-1961 and stayed the course – this time for good. The occasion was the first Israel Festival where, amongst other things, we inaugurated the old Roman Herod Atticus Theater in Caesarea playing the first notes since antiquity in that place. We also played the Beethoven Triple Concerto in New York for the first time in Carnegie Hall with Alfred Wallenstein conducting the Symphony of the Air. Now the media response was much warmer, confirming our credibility as a serious trio. We then decided to apportion a few weeks a year for a limited number of engagements in North America and Europe. The Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967, the Edinburgh, Lucerne, Menton, Aix-en-Provence festivals, to mention a few. We played more or less annually in Carnegie Hall, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Paris’ Theatre des Champs-Elysées and London’s Festival Hall. Along with these we played on several major university series in the U.S.A. The most strenuous and perhaps harrowing year for us was the Beethoven Bicentenary year in 1970 when we stayed together for 6 months playing complete cycles of 31 works of piano chamber music, sonatas, trios, piano quartet or quintet, etc. in Carnegie Hall, London, Paris, Buenos Aires and Switzerland. In the fall of 1971, we played the first recital in the Concert Hall of the newly inaugurated John F. Kennedy Center for the performing Arts and finally in Tokyo and other cities in Japan. It was during this time that we recorded the complete Beethoven Trios, two piano and cello sonatas (released much later), and Stern and I also recorded two of the piano violin sonatas, but did not complete our full project of the complete sonatas until 1984.
I must say that while we laughed a lot, bickered and quarreled quite a bit – once or twice very seriously – our basic unity on musical ideals never wavered – nor did our capacity to attain that most intimate of communications that musicians can have with one another. When we have that, a lot of pet peeves are worth enduring. In later years, after long periods apart, it only took a few bars to re-ignite that unlearnable, unrehearsable spark between us. Not that we were certain about everything we did. To the contrary, we very much sought and valued the comments of colleagues, modest or not so modest. Also, most venerable ones such as George Szell – who was not known for his sparkling sense of humor- he once asked us at a rehearsal of the Beethoven Triple Concerto in Cleveland which of our three tempi following our entrance in the first movement we wished his orchestra to take. This was helpful in that when the time came to record this work with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, we had gotten our tempos nearer in line so as to avoid a similar sarcastic inquiry! Szell also had useful and more flattering comments to make in Edinburgh on our work on the Schubert Opus 100 Trio. Arthur Rubinstein also helped us with positive comments when we ran through the same trio for him during a Lucerne Festival. Alexander Schneider often offered his inimitable, sometimes uninvited, but always wise comments – and of course Casals. I particularly recall his observation on the tempo of the first movement (faster than many take today) of the Ravel Trio which the composer had heard Cortot-Thibaud-Casals play more than once.
In summing up, we had a fantastic time. Apart from the enormous fun of it, we may have introduced into the music scene the idea of the virtuoso trio’s staying power and dedication. In recording, we were veritable fiends of perfection to our producers and engineers, each of us of course being extremely protective of his own sound. We knew just what we wanted and did not want. It must be said however that we also cared a lot about our partners’ sound. For example, we began recording the Schubert Opus 100 in Wintherthur, Switzerland and later abandoned it until we returned to New York. The sound, the strings, piano, all was wrong. We began the Ravel Trio in New York and abandoned it altogether. Once an enterprising Record Biz marketer tried to tempt us into making a pop “excerpts from your favorite trios” record, promising to put us on the best seller sales chart. We gratefully declined.
Thus, after all of this, we may have in a way helped to impart a certain virtuoso allure to several younger world class trios as a result of our exploits. Finally, the piano trio at its best is not a formation of self-effacing chamber musicians whose sum is understood to exceed his parts. Anyone who thinks that three solid but unassuming musicians can combust into an incandescent trio should be reminded that mastery is not divisible, but multipliable in the piano trio. We hope these recordings will stand up as documents of our shared musical experience.